Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Rossetti's Wombat Seated in his Master's Lap by William Bell Scott

In 1862, after the death of his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, Rossetti had moved to 16 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. The house had a large garden that soon became a miniature zoo. Rossetti, fond of visiting the wombats at London Zoo, had two ‘pet’ wombats, buying one in 1869 from the wild animal supplier, Charles Jamrach. Rossetti also had kangaroos and wallabies, armadillos, a racoon, a Canadian woodchuck and a Japanese salamander, as well as larger animals like a zebu. He even discussed the purchase of an African elephant with Jamrach.

On receiving his own wombat, he wrote to his brother describing it as ‘a Joy, a Triumph, a Delight, a Madness’. This celebrated wombat he named Top and sketched it led on a leash by Jane Morris, wife of William Morris. By all accounts, Morris was a cold husband and Jane had an intimate relationship with Rossetti which spanned decades. Perhaps it seems a little odd that he should place two objects of his affection together in this way – but odder still that they both wear halos.

However, Top was not long for this world, lasting only a couple of months, and dying despite a vet’s visit in November of 1869. When Top passed on, Rossetti drew a self portrait mourning the loss. He had Top stuffed and displayed him in the entrance to 16 Cheyne Walk.

Wombats are quite large animals, growing to about a metre in length, and Top himself seems quite large in both of Rossetti’s sketches. This drawing, done in 1871 by his friend William Bell Scott on 16 Cheyne Walk notepaper, clearly shows a small animal nestling in Rossetti’s lap – making it perhaps unlikely to be a remaining wombat. Angus Trumble, in his excellent lecture on the subject of the wombat in Victorian Britain and specifically for the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood suggests that this is in fact Rossetti’s Canadian woodchuck.

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